Caledonia homesick blues: Bob Dylan's Scottish inspiration

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T'S A rather picturesque irony that Bob Dylan, a man who has always treated the facts in his songs as fluidly as the paints with which he also expresses himself – mixing and layering them indiscriminately in pursuit of the most alluring overall imagery – has developed such a band of pedantic followers.

Clinton Heylin, one of Dylan's best respected biographers, is a principal pretender to be crowned king of such pursuers of Bob minutiae: no aside is too irrelevant; no pencil-scribbled path too overgrown to follow to its conclusion as a possible footnote; while four hundred years and a geographical divide as wide as the Atlantic ocean are merely welcome challenges in Heylin's hunt for the source of the prolific song-writer's inspiration.

Yet, as obsessive and geeky as it might seem, all this should be welcomed by anyone with an interest in Scottish music, because, in his determination to get to the root of Dylan's songs, Heylin's latest work, Revolution In The Air, does much to put in context the links between Scots folk songs and one of the most important characters in modern music.

The fact that Dylan has drawn inspiration from Scottish traditional music has long been recognised. Just last year, the man himself cited Robert Burns's My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose as the lyric that had most influenced his own writing, and Heylin's latest work draws on much that has been published or written before. But in methodically listing each song (a somewhat awe-inspiring 300 in this volume, with a further 300 to come in the next) in chronological order, as they were written, and detailing the inspiration behind them, the full extent of the Scottish influence becomes clear.

It was the poet and ethnomusicologist Hamish Henderson (whose own song The Banks of Sicily would later help provide the melody of The Times They Are A'Changin') who "discovered" that great singer and exponent of Scotland's song tradition, Jeannie Robertson, a member of the travelling community in Aberdeen in the early 1950s. That more than half a century later her influence would still be heard from the lips of arguably the greatest songwriter of modern times would surely have seemed unlikely at the time to Henderson.

Yet Dylan's connection to Robertson is just the sort of link that Heylin puts in context so well: "It was probably (Robertson's) version of (Scots ballad) Mary Hamilton he drew on for the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

In this book he tells how in 1963 Dylan was staying with Joan Baez in Carmel, California, surfing and biking at the time he wrote that song, which recounts a highly sensationalised version of a story in the news then about a death of a black barmaid at the hands of wealthy white farmer. Although Mary Hamilton was a song Baez herself performed, Heylin points out Dylan had spent his visit enthusiastically working his way through his host's record collection and it's "Robertson's deathless rendition" of the song – a tale of Mary Queen of Scots' four ladies-in-waiting – that is likely to have been the one that inspired Dylan.

His assertion is given further credibility by the fact that Dylan himself stated that Lay Down Your Weary Tune, a song written during the same visit to Baez and the next to appear Heylin's chronological list, came about because: "I had heard a Scottish ballad on an old 78 record that I was trying to really capture the feeling of, that was haunting me."

Heylin goes on to suggest the song in question was the 17th-century Scottish song Waly, Waly (an older version of the now better known Anglo-Irish song The Water Is Wide), he namechecks a whole list of folk references here to justify this conclusion, but it is the way in which the format of Heylin's book puts the songs in context that enables the reader to understand how Dylan came to be so influenced by Scottish music.

After all, unlike those vast hordes of Americans who can claim some sort of Celtic ancestry – including Baez, whose mother was born in Edinburgh (although Baez has said she was not brought up with Scots music) – Dylan's heritage was resolutely Jewish.

And his first introduction to Scots balladry came down a fairly indirect route.

"As a youngster he wouldn't have had the exposure to traditional (Scottish music]. It (his early work] covers a lot of American transplants of English or Scottish songs. But that changed when he visited London in December 1962. You get much more British influence coming through," says Heylin.

"By 1963 he's 22 and starting to branch out and learn these songs. Pretty Peggy O he almost certainly got from (Scots singer) Jean Redpath and her version of Bonnie Lass of Fyvie O.

"That's a song he had enormous affection for and was still playing in sets right through in to the 90s." Dylan and Redpath had shared a New York flat for a spell in the early Sixties.

Heylin quotes Dylan at this time declaring: "From folksongs, I learned my language… by singing them and knowing them and remembering them… You have to use (folk music] to learn about you, and whatever you want to do. English ballads, Scottish ballads, I see them in images… it goes deeper than myself singing it." So "the tradition" that Dylan has consistently identified as being so fundamental to his work is very much one with British/Celtic origins. And while Heylin identifies one Dylan composition, Seven Curses, which he traces back to a Hungarian folk song, the Eastern European influence is the exception.

"He wasn't exposed to that, although he grew up in a very large Jewish family, it doesn't feel that's a family that embraced that part of (its] heritage." Instead, he suggests, Dylan's introduction would have come from outside the home, through the likes of black American folk/blues performers such as Lead Belly and Odetta.

"Not to impugn them in anyway, but they were not direct harbingers of tradition," he adds.

Not all direct bearers of tradition were so welcoming of Dylan's attempts to absorb and transmute the songs they sang.

"When he came to England he was very keen to meet Ewan MacColl, the English folk musician and writer born to Scots parents (and father of the late Kirsty MacColl]. He was pretty crushed by MacColl's reaction to him," says Heylin. "MacColl had ravaged tradition himself, but was somehow offended that someone else had done the same."

Heylin cites MacColl's negative response to A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, a song structured on the traditional ballad Lord Randal, a song with strong Scottish roots, although popular in various forms across Europe. "(Hard Rain] is not a bad song," Heylin says, pithily . "It's based on a traditional song and makes such a clever use of traditional imagery. It provided a template for modern music. That (he was so negative about it] doesn't reflect well on MacColl."

Thankfully, Dylan has never been one to allow himself to be put down for long, and his run-in with MacColl did not quash his enthusiasm for Scottish music.

Heylin details numerous further inspirations as well as various run-ins Dylan had with performers outraged by what they saw as Dylan's blatant appropriation of their work. Yet to Heylin, Dylan was simply carrying on in a tradition in which "the word originality has no meaning – nor should it. That's something Dylan's always understood."

Exactly why a young Jewish American should find such spiritual resonance in the Anglo/Celtic musical tradition is not something Heylin explains, yet, he insists, Dylan does show "an innate ability" to look back through time and identify the very source and original ideas of songs dating back 400 years or more.

He cites Dylan's 1961 recording of The House Carpenter, an American title for a ballad also known as The Daemon Lover, which can be dated back to 16th-century Scotland, as a remarkable example of this.

"Dylan introduced (The House Carpenter] saying, 'This is a song about a ghost come back from the sea to take his bride away from the house carpenter,'" points out Heylin.

However, he explains, that supernatural element and interpretation of the song had been long lost in America. "The point is that he instinctively reached back 400 years (to the] original Scottish version.

"That's a lot of what explains why Dylan is who he is. He can get into all these songs and see the ghosts of the original elements."

That same ballad would later reappear, albeit greatly altered form, as the powerful and spine-tingling Man In the Long Black Coat on Dylan's 1989 album Oh Mercy, a song which Dylan has been quoted as considering it to be "my Walk The Line… one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time".

"I only belatedly realised that was a rewrite of The Daemon Lover. When I realised that, Jesus, the complexity of that…" says Heylin, uncharacteristically lost for words. But while it's easy to see the dramatic appeal of this haunting tale of a young bride wooed away to sea only to discover her lover is taking her not to a romantic paradise but to Hell, it was, in the end, a far gentler Scottish song that Dylan cited as his greatest inspiration.

So of all Burns's work, why does Heylin think Dylan eschewed the Scots poet's works of social protest, or severed romance like Ae Fond Kiss and instead named My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose?

"It is one of Burns's most famous and could be seen as a slightly banal choice, but I wouldn't put in into those terms," says Heylin. Instead, he suggests Dylan chose it because it is a simple and excellent example of traditional song. "It doesn't surprise me he picked this at all."

Dylan's newest album Together Through Life is out on Tuesday and we shall have to wait and see whether we can hear any echoes of Scotland. But when he plays in Glasgow and Edinburgh the following weekend it's a fairly safe bet some of that tradition will filter through.

"People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look," Heylin quotes Dylan as saying at the start of Revolution In The Air. For Scottish fans of the man who in 1997 sang My Heart Is In the Highlands, it seems the best place to look could be in their own country.

SOUNDS FAMILIAR?

The traditional Scottish ballad Lord Randal

"O where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?

And where ha you been, my handsome young man?"

"I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,

For I'm wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down."

"An wha met ye there, Lord Randal, my son?

And wha met ye there, my handsome young man?"

"O I met wi my true-love; mother, mak my bed soon,

"For I'm wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down."

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?

Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,

I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,

I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,

I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,

And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

• Although Lord Randal may begin innocently enough, the song goes on to describe how his true love poisoned him, his hawk and his hound have died and he's about to follow suit and finishes with him condemning his beloved to "fire and hell" – images of poison, death and destruction which are echoed in Dylan's song as well as the structure of the original ballad.